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A backstage comedy that puts its best foot forward

January 21, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Theater buffs who collect playbills, devour actor biographies and relish backstage gossip will no doubt savor Austin Pendleton's sparkling comedy "Orson's Shadow," which opened Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse. The play is reminiscent of those luxuriant anecdotes show people used to tell each other over consecutive highballs at Sardi's. All that's missing is the fancy cocktail peanuts.

This production of "Orson's Shadow," directed by Playhouse associate artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, isn't the first to hit the area. (Black Dahlia Theatre presented the play in 2001.) But there's a freshness to the work even when it's pitched too broadly and the writing's patchiness is hard to overlook.

Kenneth Tynan (Scott Lowell), the leading London theater critic of the 1950s, wants his hero, Sir Laurence Olivier (Charles Shaughnessy), to hire him as an advisor to the long-nascent National Theatre of Great Britain. Tynan is understandably nervous about approaching Olivier, as he wrote scathing reviews of Olivier's unstable wife, Vivien Leigh (Sharon Lawrence), whose delicate equilibrium was apparently rocked by his pugnacious prose.

More anxiety-provoking still, Tynan wants Orson Welles (Bruce McGill) to direct Olivier in "Rhinoceros," the curious new Eugene Ionesco play. This is a little like asking Muhammad Ali to train Joe Frazier.

The year is 1960. Tynan, who's been writing for the New Yorker, is itching to become something more than a shadowy critic. Welles, his prodigiously gifted and perennially stymied friend, is also in a purgatorial place. He's trying to scrounge up funding for his Falstaff film, "Chimes at Midnight," a stage version of which he's been performing to empty houses in Dublin. It's a sorry fate for the wunderkind behind "Citizen Kane," now a fat middle-aged man who can't bear to hear what a prodigy he once was.

By rescuing Welles, Tynan believes he can rescue Britain's old-school theatrical establishment as glamorously embodied by Olivier, the most lionized stage actor in the English-speaking world. In Tynan's scheme, the 20th century's two preeminent Shakespeareans will mutually exploit each other for the art form's gain. An inspired plan, but what rehearsal hall in the world could contain the outsize egos of these histrionic titans?

One of the more humorous aspects of Pendleton's freehand historical drama is the ways these highbrow figures are incongruously trapped in real-life melodrama. Olivier's marriage to Leigh is in its death throes, partly because of her episodic madness and partly because he's fallen in love with actress Joan Plowright (Libby West), the sturdiest personality of the lot.

Tynan, beset with a stammer that tends to erupt when he needs his golden fluency the most, appears to be smoking himself into a premature grave -- which may on some level be preferable to the pressure of having to live up to his dazzling brilliance. And Welles, eating and drinking as though he were playing a Roman emperor, has an uncanny ability to sabotage his own creative efforts, potential masterpieces included.

All three men confess -- competitively, of course -- to having had grief-stricken childhoods. Olivier's and Welles' mothers died when they were young, and Tynan, born out of wedlock, had to deal with a mother with loose marbles. They're spurred by their early pain to high achievement and condemned by it to find their accomplishments crucially lacking.

Appropriately enough for a dark backstage comedy, the most vivid aspect of the production is the raw scenic design by Gary Wissmann, which exposes the depth and unadorned architectural beauty of the Playhouse's stage. All of the characters are up against a brick wall, and that is what the audience sees at the back of the set, atmospherically lighted by Dan Jenkins.

Rodriguez's direction, so adept at arranging tableaux, maneuvers his cast in ways that illuminate the play's shifting relationships. For the most part, the actors approach their roles as stylized impersonations flecked with psychological detail.

Although this sometimes lends the hilarity a caricature quality, there are moments of genuine pathos. For all its farcical flourishes, "Orson's Shadow" offers poignant reflection on the insatiable insecurity that goes hand in hand with fame, the brevity of even durable careers and the way triumphs in art don't translate into triumphs of personal happiness.

But it's too easy to reduce these figures to traits -- Welles' basso profundo, Tynan's dandyish way with a cigarette, Olivier's elocutionary vanity, Leigh's Blanche DuBois craziness.

It seems the more popularly known the celebrity, the harder it is to create a persuasive character. Lawrence has the toughest challenge with Leigh, the part that's the least fully written, but she manages to impart gravity to her flouncy portrait.

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